Can we separate the life and work of artists?

Story highlights

  • Ronan Farrow challenged media to cover sexual assault allegations against Woody Allen more assertively
  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Revelations or allegations often bring punishments that extend to sanctions on an individual's body of work

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who writes frequently for CNN, is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)What happens when we learn that a person whose creative work we admire supports causes we find offensive, or has engaged in acts contrary to our values? Does this change our opinion of their work? Ronan Farrow's renewed accusations this week in a Hollywood Reporter article that his father, the director Woody Allen, molested his sister Dylan open a window for reflection on these issues.

It's important to note that Allen has not been charged with any crime: Farrow's are only allegations, first put forth in the early 1990s. As I write, Allen is in Cannes, where his new film, "Café Society," has the prestigious opening night spot at the famous French film festival. Coming at a peak moment of his father's career, Farrow's piece is ostensibly meant as a call to look beyond the glamour, on and off screen, and consider the weight of the private sphere.
    Ruth Ben-Ghiat
    History is full of people who have created beautiful and awe-inspiring things for causes that we today might find reprehensible. Leni Riefenstahl was by all accounts a very talented documentary filmmaker, but she worked for Adolf Hitler. And a long line of people made incredible work while holding private convictions or engaging in acts that we might find abominable. If the allegations were proved true, Allen would be in this latter category.
    And while it's fruitless to apply today's standards to people who lived in the past, we can choose what to do with the information once we have it.
    First, we have to decide if we care. Does it change your experience of a Le Corbusier building to know that when it was built the modernist architect was a convinced fascist?
    Or what about the artist Pablo Picasso? When you know he beat his wives and lovers, does it change how you view his paintings, especially the many that feature women?
    Today's complex media landscape multiplies these dilemmas. If one of your favorite artists or stars tweets something racist or sexist, will that carry over to how you think about him or her as performer? Or what if you like a song, then watch the video and find it so saturated with violence and sexism that you change the channel? This happened to me at the gym the other day. I still have the song in my music library. Will I feel differently when I listen to it again?
    Of course, if we feel strongly enough, we can boycott that person's work. This was the fate of the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, who authored anti-Semitic essays along with his musical masterpieces, which include operas some believe caricature Jews. Even though Theodor Herzl, a founder of Zionism, loved Wagner, so did Hitler. So the state of Israel unofficially banned performances of his work until 2012. Did Wagner's music change that year? No, but in that case it became acceptable to put aside the politics and just appreciate the music.
    American society seems to be going in a different direction.
    Today, revelations or allegations of actions often bring punishments that extend to sanctions on an individual's body of work. The entertainer Bill Cosby provides a case in point. His popular family sitcom "The Cosby Show" disappeared from networks after news broke he had been accused by numerous women of drugging and sexually abusing them.
    In Allen's case, we have no certainty as to what did or did not happen. When the French comedian Laurent Lafitte interrupted the jovial mood of the Cannes opening night screening by pointing out the contrast between Allen's public acclamation and his private drama, Allen shrugged it off. And so will many who watch his new film, and continue to enjoy his earlier ones.
    It's complicated to bring the personal into the picture, to think about whether our appreciation of a given work is changed by more knowledge about its creator. Some might see political correctness at work. Managers and others with financial stakes in a famous individual's reputation often obstruct it. And many choose to keep that firewall up so they can just enjoy the entertainment.
    Yet the continued explosion of social media, and the greater transparency and communication it brings to society, means that such revelations are likely to increase, posing the question of how we are connected to our cultural icons. Can we love their work even after we no longer love them? That's a question each one of us will have to answer.